Researchers have found a way to address the increasing demand for food around the world. In a new study, they detailed how they were able to increase crop yield by reclaiming calories lost to photorespiration.

As part of the Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency or RIPE, researchers from the University of Illinois and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service engineered plants with a photorespiratory shortcut that was able to increase production to up to 40 percent.

Details were published in the journal Science.

Increasing Crop Yield Through Genetic Engineering

To achieve this, the researchers interfered with what is called photorespiration, a process that costs the plant enormous energy and resources, limiting crop yield.

The researchers explained that an enzyme called Rubisco, which is found in the leaves of plants, is in charge of picking up carbon dioxide from the air to be used to make sugar molecules that fuel growth and yield. This process is known as photosynthesis.

However, about 20 percent of the time, Rubisco grabs oxygen instead of carbon dioxide, creating a toxic compound that the plant needs to recycle through the process of photorespiration.

"Photorespiration is anti-photosynthesis," said Paul South, a research molecular biologist and the lead author of the study.

The process of photorespiration takes a lot of energy that otherwise would have been used for plant growth and yield. To recycle the toxic compound, it has to go through a complicated route made up of three compartments in the plant cell.

To reduce the energy wasted on photorespiration, the researchers rerouted the process, drastically shortening the trip that the compound has to make to be recycled. This dramatically reduced the resources needed to detoxify the plant.

"Much like the Panama Canal was a feat of engineering that increased the efficiency of trade, these photorespiratory shortcuts are a feat of plant engineering that prove a unique means to greatly increase the efficiency of photosynthesis," added Stephen Long, director of RIPE.

The Answer To A Global Problem

The researchers believe that this can aid in addressing the rapidly expanding food demand driven by the growing population around the world. By simply reclaiming the resources lost from photorespiration, existing crops can feed an additional 200 million people.

Right now, the researchers have only tested the process om tobacco plants. However, they plan to genetically engineer other plants such as soybeans, cowpeas, rice, potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplants.

The process will also become even more necessary in the future as the global temperature continues to rise due to climate change. Study co-author Amanda Cavanagh, a postdoctoral researcher, explained that as the weather heats up, the Rubisco will find it even more challenging to pick out carbon dioxide from oxygen.

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